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The dark history behind Shark Nets in New South Wales, Australia

Imagine yourself in Sydney, Australia in 1937. A time before World War II had broken out. Charlie Chaplin was the most popular actor in cinemas. TV's didn't exist. There were very few traffic lights in existence, the very first one was only installed a couple short years before. This was also the year of the infamous disaster when the German airship Hindenburg burst into flames.


In this very same year, today’s shark meshing program (SMP) began, involving the placement of lethal shark nets at popular beaches that measure 150m long and 6m deep; sitting below the surface of the water with the aim to catch and kill as many sharks as possible at Sydney’s beaches. This was in response to a spate of shark bites, now known to be due to a nearby abattoir and effluent dumping, however, at the time this connection was not made.

Bondi Beach, Circa 1930, Bondi Stories

Over the years, the language used when referring to the shark nets has changed but the intent and design remains the same. Today’s shark meshing program of nets are not shark-proof barriers or enclosures.


Shark-proof barriers were in place in Coogee, Sydney before 1937, but the public considered them to be an “eye-sore” and it was thought that swimmers swam towards them so often that extra life-savers were required (The Daily Telegraph: Thu 10 Sep 1931). In addition, they were frequently damaged by storms and were expensive to repair.


In the late 1930s when shark-proof barriers and enclosures were being considered to be replaced with today’s shark meshing program, Randwick council in Sydney opposed the motion and stated that they "believe that the only safe way is to erect shark-proof enclosures" (Daily Telegraph: 29 Mar 1935). However, the public supported the motion and so the lethal shark meshing program, as we have it today, began.


In 1937 when the shark nets were first installed, it was with "the aim of the company being to catch as many sharks as possible" (Labour Daily: 17 Nov 1937). Shark nets were a preferred option as the public supported a lethal programme to “rid the ocean of sharks” and to “deal with the shark menace” (Canberra Times: Thu 19 Jul 1934). We know through anecdotal information, that this program was successful in its aim of catching and killing thousands of sharks in its early years, even though catch records have since vanished. It was not, however, successful in protecting swimmers, with the first fatality occurring at a netted beach in 1951 in Newcastle. As of today, the tally is up to almost 40 shark incidents at shark netted beaches in NSW, a place bathers are supposedly "protected".


Queensland started their own version of this program in 1962, also using shark nets (albeit slightly longer at 183m long, and still only 6m deep), and also added the destructive drumline, or 'shark lines' as they were first referred to. The baited fishing hook suspended from a buoyant drum (today replaced by a rubber buoy) was designed, just as shark nets are, to catch and kill. They too succeeded at killing, but did they succeed in making beaches safer? With two fatalities and almost 30 non-lethal bites to date at Queensland beaches "protected" by shark nets and drumlines, the answer is, like NSW, again a resounding 'no'.

Hammerhead killed in NSW Shark Net, HSI/AMCS/N McLachlan

The design of shark nets today has not changed, other than the addition of dolphin and whale pingers that have done little to prevent multiple dolphins and whales from being caught and killed. At the time of writing, between 1st Sep 2021 and 31st Oct 2021, 5 humpback whales have been caught, despite these pingers. 92% of all animals caught in the nets are non-target species, and over a third of animals caught in the nets are considered to be endangered, or vulnerable to extinction.


The shark nets are considered fishing devices in law (in both NSW and QLD) and it is only in the Government's own publications and misleading ministerial and department statements that people refer to them as a tool designed to keep people safe. This was never their primary goal. They were specifically designed to catch and kill sharks and other marine animals. They are effective fishing devices - they are not effective safety devices.


In 2021, we have much more sophisticated technology, including drones, and much more sophisticated medical practices. A lot has changed since 1937, and we need to encourage our government to move with the times too.


Help support our campaign and show our governments that the public does not support the continued use of the outdated shark meshing program and want to use non-lethal methods only.


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